by Chris Canniff
Last year, I was sitting in a class taught by one of my favorite professors, but I wasn’t really paying much attention. All of a sudden, I heard her mention Dolly Parton, and I thought to myself, “What does Dolly Parton have to do with theology? We’re talking about Didymus’ treatise on the Holy Spirit.” The professor was referring to the song “Wings of a Dove.” I had my laptop with me, so she asked me to play the song on YouTube for the class to hear. It turns out that it’s about the Holy Spirit.
I’m actually a big fan of country music. My sister and my brother-in-law live in Nashville, and I visit quite regularly. It’s fun to go to the Grand Ole Opry, to eat at Jack’s
Bar-B-Que, and to visit some plantations like Belle Meade and Carnton. Apart from the ubiquity of distinctly southern music, food, and history, there is also a distinctly southern religious
ethos that is quite palpable. It seems as if every third building you pass as you drive down the street is a church. There’s one spot I know of where there are four churches next door
to one another.
Protestant Christianity is everywhere. The funniest example of this occurred last summer. Waiting on the sidewalk outside a store in the small town of Franklin, TN, I overheard a mother talking to her child. The mother said something about the Pope, and the kid replied, “I don’t know what a pope is.”
Since I grew up as a Catholic in an Italian and Irish family in Boston, these cultural differences certainly stand out to me. And yet, although there are many more children in Boston who are quite familiar with what and who the Pope is, Catholic Christianity does not permeate society as religion does down south.
I believe that music is one of the best ways of integrating religion and culture, as has been demonstrated across the centuries. Country music is a genre that seems to do this so naturally in our American context. While many contemporary country songs are just fun to sing and dance to such as Jason Aldean’s “My Kinda Party” and Luke Bryan’s “That’s My Kind of Night,” others evince a bit more than superficiality. Sam Hunt’s “Break Up in a Small Town” is a classic example of the mantra that it only takes three chords and the truth to make a good country song, and just about any student who has tried their hand at dating while at BC can relate to those lyrics.
It’s the specifically religious songs, however, that make the genre of country music so distinctive. Carrie Underwood’s single from last fall, entitled “Something in the Water,” is an overt testimony to her Baptist faith. She sings of the preacher man taking her down to the river, where she is “washed in the water, washed in the blood.” At the end, as the refrain fades out and the music of her Christian anthem slows to more tender tones, you hear her singing “Amazing Grace.” And what’s most amazing about this song is its huge commercial success despite its unabashed witness to faith.
Another openly religious song is Miranda Lambert’s “Heart Like Mine,” in which she sings, “I heard Jesus He drank wine / And I bet we'd get along just fine / He could calm the storm and heal the blind / And I bet He'd understand a heart like mine.” It’s not every day that you hear a major entertainer using their music to convey to people the compassion that Jesus has for us in our complex humanity which sometimes falls short of the ideals.
Click the pictures to link to the songs on YouTube.
A song by an up-and-coming country duo The Swon Brothers is called “Pray for You.” The chorus speaks to our struggles: “Sometimes you need more than whiskey / Sometimes wisdom just won't do / Well I ain't gonna judge you / I'm just gonna love you / Tonight I'm gonna pray for you.” We all know what it’s like to think we can solve our problems and find our happiness with Jack Daniels. But this is only a temporary corrective, not a long-term guarantee. We all think that there must be someone who can help us by giving some advice. But this isn’t always the case. When a friend is struggling, sometimes, we don’t know what to say, and all we can do is love them and pray.
In retrospect, my professor was quite smart to highlight a country music reference when teaching us about ancient doctrines. So even if you don’t like to read the tractates of Didymus, you can still learn a little about God by listening to Dolly.